When the United States jumped into World War II, many were shocked by the overwhelming support of Native Americans. After all, the United States did not have a history of treating Indians well. Whites had removed Native Americans from their lands, marched them to their deaths, infected them with disease, and in some cases, slaughtered them mercilessly. Even when the U.S. government attempted to make amends, corruption and bureaucracy made a mess of Indian affairs. Yet, in the wake of Pearl Harbor’s attack, when the country was in a call to arms, Native Americans stepped in to fight with roughly 45,000 Indians joining the American war effort. Tribesmen (and women) from all over joined the military, with some tribes sending up to 70 percent of their able-bodied to war. War Department officials once commented that if the entire population had enlisted in the same proportions as Indians, Selective Service would have been rendered unnecessary.
Despite past grievances with the United States government, Native Americans understood (all too well) the need to defend one’s land. It also helped that tribes were (generally) steeped in traditions of fighting which would serve them well overseas. In fact, some Indians carried on their war traditions in Europe. Joe Medicine Crow of Montana, for example, wrote about counting coup (preforming deeds necessary to become a chief) during WWII. The four acts of this tradition required him to lead a victorious war party, touch an enemy and then disarm him, and to steal an enemy’s horses.
Along with fighting traditions, Native American language also proved valuable on the battlefield. “Code Talkers” of the Navajo tribe served in all six Marine divisions, delivering and translating messages in their native tongue, a language that no one else understood. These unique linguistic skills provided the Marines with a tactical advantage, allowing them to transmit crucial information by radio with little risk of enemies intercepting their messages.
Important as their language was to the war effort, Navajos were rejected in large numbers from serving in the war because they were unable to speak English. These Native Americans, and others who didn’t meet qualifications, organized remedial English training on their reservations, learning to speak and write so that they could be eligible for service.
It is awe-inspiring that Native Americans were so determined to serve a country that had treated them so poorly. Many Indians were asked why they were fighting in the war. One tribesman summed up his involvement saying, “[The Indian] is fighting for what he has always fought for – the land of the free and the home of the brave.”